Think-tank demands government IT reform

A think-tank headed up by Sir Ian Magee has demanded a new approach to the way that IT is procured across Government, with ideas for a system that offers the ability to remain flexible while procuring on a government-wide basis.

With approximately £16 billion being spent per year on IT, it is noted that too frequently there have been failures to properly implement technology in a cost effective way, leading to a number of problems including massive delays or lack of interoperability due to legacy systems.

The Institue for Government report claims that the current model for IT is in dire need of modernisation as it fails to take into account swift changes in technology that cannot wait for the clunking machinery of Whitehall to keep pace.

“Most government IT therefore remains trapped in an outdated model, which attempts to lock project requirements up-front and then proceeds at a glacial pace,” the report states. “The result is repeated system-wide failure.”

Instead the IfG recommends a new approach which enables a more adaptive and flexible way of developing IT, by effectively separating into two strands that simultaneously seek to offer the flexibility needed to remain up to date while being able to procure on a large scale where necessary.

The report suggests two methods, ‘agile’ and ‘platform’, and sets forth how, by using this methodology in the future, significant savings could be made in both money and time.

It is noted that in the IT profession the term ‘agile’ refers principally to the use of software, though the report stipulates that it could similarly be used to describe a more comprehensive system of modular development that is able to take into account user feedback, essentially allowing services to become more reactive, something the civil service famously struggles to cope with.

Meanwhile, ‘platform’ refers to a more wide-ranging cross-government approach to maintain shared standards through commodity procurement, allowing for common standards that are able to support interoperability between systems.

It is also recommended that procurement is coordinated by lead departments on behalf of the whole of government.

“The Government CIO should be the first point of arbitration and the Public Expenditure Committee should provide the ultimate point of authority,” the report states.

Essentially the report seeks the best of both worlds, a reactive IT system that is able to stay modernised while offering the necessary low prices through commodity procurement, though how easy it will be to maintain is difficult to see as, of course, the two ideas are directly opposed at surface.

“These potential drawbacks need to be carefully managed. Yet the relationship between platform and agile is not zero sum, where more of one means less of the other.

“The platform must address the basics effectively in order to free up specialist time and resources to take advantage of new opportunities. Equally, as agile approaches are used to explore new opportunities, innovations are scaled up and better technologies and approaches are fed into the platform more rapidly.”

 “It won’t be easy to implement the ‘agile’ approach, mainly because it demands a whole new approach from everyone,” Ian Magee told TechEye. “But the good news is that there are pockets where it’s being used already to great effect – so as long as people learn from experience, they have a chance of getting there.

“If the current situation is allowed to continue we will see more examples of cost and time over-runs from government, with frustrated users having “solutions” imposed on them; and a poorer service to the public than they’re entitled to expect.”